High Speed Rail: Roads to Ruin

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Proposals for new high speed rail projects inevitably affect property owners and businesses along the proposed route, not to mention the myriad interests that new construction projects excite. What is less obvious is that interested parties supporting other modes of transport infrastructure, such as roads, can actively de-rail major projects that tick all the boxes in terms of safety, efficiency and environmental friendliness.

Where corridors for high speed rail projects have been identified and protected for some time, or will replace existing transport corridors, things are certainly much easier. If tight government budgets can be removed from the equation, then the success of high speed rail projects getting off the ground in the first instance are more likely. But if either the corridor is yet to be established, or government funds are needed for the project, the problems can drag on interminably.

We've seen the impact of budgets in the ongoing debate over high speed rail in Australia. Trade and Investment Minister Andrew Robb told The Australian that it was not a question of wanting high speed rail, but of how it will be funded. For  head of the Prime Minister's Business Advisory Council, Maurice Newman: "it's not a question of being convinced... it's a question of how we pay for it".

Clearly, the corridor is not the big obstacle for high speed rail in Australia.

But in Texas, the exact opposite is the case. A proposal by Texas Central Railway to link Houston and Dallas by high speed rail would move commuters in 90 minutes. Direct flights between the two cities run more than 30 times per day and take just over one hour. But of course, boarding and disembarking times would make the two modes comparable and in direct competition.

Texas Central's proposal is to deploy the "N700-I Bullet based on the Tokaido Shinkansen", the "oldest and busiest Shinkansen line" in Japan. This system is owned by the Central Japan Railway Company that recently hosted Maurice Newman's visit to Japan.

And the project will be funded entirely by the private sector. Unless its opponents can stop it from happening in the first place.

Two groups are spearheading the opposition to high speed rail: No Texas Central Railway and Texans Against High Speed Rail.

To be sure, there are many factors to consider when any network infrastructure is deployed. And liberal democracies carry the extra burden of property rights that are not so easily remedied for major infrastructure projects as in command economies.

However, it becomes really bizarre when the arguments put forward by the project's opponents are brought to light.

Eric Jaffe from The Atlantic's CityLab points out some of the more disturbing arguments by Texas House of Reps member Will Metcalf: "We need more roads for citizens to travel to ease our existing roadways... We do not need a high-speed railway in Texas that will only benefit a few, while at the same time disturbing thousands of citizens within its path". Others suggest that because 18 million people already choose to drive, it is unlikely that enough people will switch to high speed rail to justify the project.

It is interesting that rail's golden era in Australia was in large part due to legislation protecting the industry from competition from road carriers. It was not until the Hughes and Vale case that State laws were overturned in 1954 and our present day reliance on road transport was spawned. Today, roads have taken some of the steam out of rail, so to speak.

What is clear is that transport infrastructure debates are much more complex than simply debunking the myths. It may well be that crafty legislation is necessary to enable major infrastructure projects to get off the ground. Certainly, there is mounting evidence to suggest that procrastination will lead to lower living standards in the long term.

Previously, I was concerned about the ACT Government's attempt to limit appeals about planning approvals for the Capital Metro project. But if elected representatives can propose laws to stop major projects like Texas Central Railways, why shouldn't elected representatives make laws to enable major projects like Capital Metro?

I have been thinking about the merits of the command economies' approach to transport infrastructure and whether a form of bipartisanship, through Quangos or statutory authorities or other governance mechanisms, can overcome the limitations of day-to-day politics. Of course, there are many problems with this approach such as:
Obviously, I don't have all the answers. But what is obvious is that decades of delay on transport infrastructure we should already have and the embedded cultures related to old modes of transportation - the car - do nothing for the future of our standard of living. There is an urgent need to shift and inform transport infrastructure policy debates to prevent procrastination. Mass transit is one feasible solution, but the road to ruin is already in our collective wind-shields.